Ethical Questioning of Milgram & Zimbardo

Dr. Stanley Milgram’s ‘Obedience to Authority Study’ (known as the Milgram Experiment) pushed (and some say overstepped) the boundaries of psychological ethics. I stand with those who believe Milgram’s experiment inappropriately misinformed the participants in the study, and was therefore, unethical. However, ethically, he deceived the participants and did not disclose his purpose for the experiment. (Blass 2011)

Philip Zimbardo also tested the risqué waters of ethical experimentation when he gave roles as prisoners or guards to role play for two weeks in his ‘Prison Experiment.’ Though similar to Milgram’s experiment in how the participants given the illusion of power over another person treated their ‘subjects’ or ‘prisoners,’ I believe Zimbardo’s experiment was ethical. This opinion might be unpopular, but Zimbardo fully disclosed that the simulation was role-playing only, the roles were clearly outlined during interviews, and the participants were given the option to leave whenever they wanted. The only questionable part of the experiement is the lack of intervention when the ‘guards’ started being physically abusive, when the ‘prisoners’ were told they would not be allowed to do so. (McLeod 2008)

Truthfully, I am not certain if Milgram could have performed his experiment and collected authentic and honest data if the participants would have known they were not applying actual shocks and injuring their ‘subjects.’ Their actions would have reflected their interpretation that they were merely role-playing. On paper, his experiment was testing ‘for the greater good’ to try to investigate how the Nazi genocide came to be; however, his execution and lack of full disclosure was not worth the damage to the participants. Despite Zimbardo’s critical error in failing to intervene when the ‘guards’ physically abused the ‘prisoners,’ the results of his experiment suggested that prison violence was a result of situational influences rather than a violent disposition of those men in ‘guard’ roles. These results could help mend the environment of correctional facilities so they might be used to ‘correct’ and ‘reform’ prisoners more, and punish and torture them less. Zimbardo’s participants chose to stay in the experiment, knowing they could leave. Though they did have negative experiences, Zimbardo’s experiment as a whole was worth the short-term stress.

If I were a professional sociologist, I would be interested in researching the effects of power and control in military training. Similar to how the ‘prisoners’ were stripped of identity and became identifying themselves as their numbers instead of their own names; military personnel undergo a (less violent and abusive, obviously) similar process in basic training to strip them of some identity and rebuild it with a new perspective of patriotism and attitude to reflect and represent our country. I have had several friends and family members explain their experience to me, and how they see themselves and their country differently after. I have never experienced that, so I would be interested in understanding that process of conformity and unity. [Word Count: 484]